The Bruce Eric Kaplan Interview

April 9, 2004

Today is the day to fashion a trickle-down scheme.


Here is a short interview with moi.

If you read the New Yorker or watch Six Feet Under, then you know today's interviewee.  He illustrates the funniest cartoon in the magazine, identifiable by its big blocky characters and the illustration "BEK." He also produces and writes for the popular HBO show. And remember that episode of Seinfeld where Elaine drew a cartoon for the New Yorker? Yep, that was him too.

The Bruce Eric Kaplan Interview: A Little Less Than Twenty Questions

How often do you draw based on experiences from your television career, or write based on your experiences from drawing?
I  suppose I occasionally draw based on my experiences from my television career.  I have to deal with people all day long ñ either writers in the office, or crew people on the set and some of those interactions inform my drawings.

  I donít think I write based on my experiences from drawing too much because drawing is a very solitary activity for me (as I assume it is for others who draw) and doesnít generate much material to mine later.

  When a cartoon character like yours, or Little Orphan Annieís, lacks pupils, what is that saying? That they have no soul? Or you just donít feel like drawing pupils?
Oh my gosh, no, it is not saying they have no souls.  I donít know about Little Orphan Annie, but my people certainly have souls.  Perhaps too much soul.  They are burdened by their soulfulness, in my opinion.   And Iím not sure itís that I donít feel like drawing pupils, although to be honest, who does?  I think it is that not having pupils suggest a certain wide-eyed quality that suits the people (and animals) in my world.

  Does the New Yorker now ever turn down cartoons that you submit to them?
The New Yorker turns down the vast majority of cartoons I send them.  (See below.)  And yes, it is deeply painful.

  What is the illustrating process for the New Yorker? Do you submit them cartoons on an issue by issue basis or do you send them as you draw them?
There is an art meeting once a week.  I submit ten or more drawings and then they pick maybe one or two, or more often than I would like, none.  The ones they have bought may appear sometime in the next few weeks or months.  But a not small amount pop up years after they have been bought.

  You have a new collection out called This is a Bad Time.  How do you choose the cartoons that go into your collections? Do you have themes in mind when you put them together or do you just pick your favorites?
I mostly just pick favorites.  Or rather, I approach it from the opposite direction.   I mostly just winnow out ones that I am not as happy with, or that seem repetitive, or not as interesting as they once were.  The ones I am left with are, by default, my favorites.

  What was the inspiration for The Cat that Changed My Life?
Thatís a toughie.  I was just scribbling down strange ideas for books and this one struck me as something I really wanted to do.  (When I usually write down ideas, I promptly dismiss them as something I would never actually want to do.)

  A more distant inspiration was a book I happen to love called The Writerís Desk by Jill Krementz.   I love the format of that book  -- itís a series of portraits and short autobiographical essays that go with each one.

  Who are some of your favorite cartoonists or strips or comics?
Well, I loved the look of Nancy when I was a kid ñ she lived in a such a strange little world that was quite striking.   And I loved Charlie Brown and The Wizard of Id and Funky Winkerbean.  God, I havenít thought about Funky Winkerbean in years.  I wonder where he went.   And I always loved New Yorker people, especially Charles Addams.

  You submitted to the New Yorker for three years before they accepted one of your cartoons. Have you since then tried to resubmit a cartoon they originally rejected?
No, I never look back at my old work.  But I do tend to rework a lot of similar themes so I am sure I have unconsciously resubmitted very similar cartoons to ones that were rejected many years ago.

  When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up? Which career option presented itself to you first, drawing or writing (or producing?)
I donít remember ever really wanting to be anything as a child.  I just wanted to eat and watch TV which still seems to be the way I am.

When I got older and had to earn a living, I tried being a writer first and had a terrible struggle breaking in.  I then tried to do cartoons, thinking that would be easier.  It wasnít.  So for a while, I was concurrently struggling at being a writer and being a cartoonist.  Coincidentally, it was during my first television writing job that I also sold my first cartoon to the New Yorker.

  Has working on Six Feet Under altered your attitudes about the afterlife?
Not at all.  I came in with pretty fixed views about the afterlife and still have them.  One would think it would have changed my attitudes about death though (which is obviously different that the afterlife).  But it hasnít.  Oh, I donít know, maybe it has now that I think about it.  I guess I am more conscious of death than I used to be.

  Whatís been your favorite episode so far?
They are like children.  I have a soft spot for every episode I write.  Mostly because they represent a certain time in my life to me.  If I had to pick one, I would say it was ìThe Invisible Womanî from the second season ñ thatís the one with the funeral of Emily Previn, a woman who seems to have absolutely no one mourning her passing.

  Do you do much writing other than for the cartoons and for television?
Oh my God, no, isnít that enough?

  How does one become a producer?
Itís an amorphous word, producer.  Many television producers (such as myself) are writers who rise up in the ranks, from staff writer to story editor to co-producer, etc.  Sometimes it is just a title and you donít really produce ñ you just write scripts.  In the case of Six Feet Under, the writers all actually produce their episodes (which means going to casting and helping in the other needs of pre-production, being on the set during shooting, going to editing and doing other post-production activities).

  In Googling you, I didnít come upon a single negative sentence written about you or your work. Are you very self-critical or do you figure youíve made it this far for a reason?
First off, I donít know what Google you have but I have come across many negative sentences about my work, both the cartoons and television.   And obviously, one remembers those longer.  I can quote some of them.

I guess I am very self-critical.  Especially during the process.  I mean, when I am home, alone, at my desk, I can descend into deep upset and self-hatred.  And that is understating it.

When do you most frequently come up with ideas, either for the cartoons or television or anything else? Do you have specific brainstorming sessions or do things pop into your head?
Things almost never ever pop into my head.  I am amazed by people who say  ìI was just walking along and I suddenly had the greatest idea forÖî  I have to sit somewhere and just bang my head against something until something ñ anything ñ dribbles out.

Have you ever written down a phrase to remind yourself of a brilliant idea, only to realize later on that you couldnít remember what the hell was so funny?
Not exactly.  But often I draw what I think is the most touching, hilarious, insightful cartoon in the world saying something that needs to be said desperately for the good of all mankind.  Then I look at it moments or days later, and I think, that is not funny nor interesting.  In fact, it is merely incomprehensible gobbledygook.

  Did you go to the Emmys when the show was nominated for Best Drama Series? When a bunch of people get nominated at one time for something like that, do you discuss ahead of time how many seconds each person gets at the mike?
Yes, I have been to the Emmys several times.  You always know going in who the person is who is going to speak at the mike.  I donít know about that pre-discussion.  All I know is that it has never been me.

How does it feel to be the 91st person interviewed for
It feels pretty darn incredible.